The past is never dead. It's not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, 1951

By almost any measure, 2020, just past the halfway mark as I write, has been an extraordinary year. As with 1945 and 1968, mention of 2020 will likely conjure a distinct and powerful set of associations (and material culture) for people long into the future (Figure 1). Various features of this issue—a series of museum curators' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, statements on racial justice and Confederate monument removal from SAH leaders and affiliate and preservation group members, a letter to the editor regarding monument removal—respond to these charged and ongoing circumstances.1 History is always in the making, but its making is more evident at some times than others. This year marks one of those times. If, as the saying goes, news is the first draft of history, this issue of JSAH is newsier than most.2

Figure 1

Peeter Põllu Monument wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tartu, Estonia, 22 March 2020 (photo by Mana Kaasik, Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 1

Peeter Põllu Monument wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tartu, Estonia, 22 March 2020 (photo by Mana Kaasik, Wikimedia Commons).

As professional historians, we are tasked with “making” history. Mostly, we do this as investigators, authors, and narrators of the past, but many also aim to be actors, exerting through their work an influence on contemporary conditions. Outside of our jobs and our organizations, few of us have any direct or substantive role in setting policy on a broad scale. Instead, we plumb archives and gather data; we write, design, curate, teach, speak, document, administer, debate, advise, and maybe even testify; we secure and distribute resources so that others might do their work; we attend committee meetings and form subcommittees. Through these actions we seek to affect people and places and, just maybe, depending on our predilections, to influence policies and practices in the larger world. For the more politically motivated among us this is a maddeningly slow and indirect route to change. Thus, in the wake of events such as the police killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, some architectural historians, along with many others, have taken to the streets. Meanwhile, back at our desks, we are accustomed (like others working in the humanities) to defending the relevance of what we do professionally. Yet such defenses now seem superfluous because the relevance of history is evident everywhere to anyone paying even the slightest attention. An empty pedestal is nothing if not a stark reminder that history matters and that values, virtues, and their expressions are firmly situated in time and place. Despite the grinding nature of this year's events and the economic hardships that so many individuals and institutions now face, there is a spark of hope and opportunity in history's current prominence. The moment is ripe for revisiting old stories, for telling new ones and presenting new perspectives, for fostering new futures grounded in an accurate, informed, and nuanced awareness of the past.

SAH members are well placed to seize this moment, and one of our greatest strengths as an organization lies in the variety of stories we have to tell. The Society recognizes that building and sustaining demographic diversity among its membership is vital to the organization's health. So too is maintaining and continuing to nurture a diversity of ideas and approaches. Facts are the building blocks of our work, but few of us stop there. From them we construct interpretations and histories of people and the things that they have made and used over time. That is, as much as we work with facts, we are ultimately people of viewpoints and beliefs, and so we are bound to diverge from one another sometimes in asserting or defending these, at times vociferously. Such differences are related to what we now see happening across the United States and around the world, in what so many media outlets have dubbed this year's “racial reckoning.” The current social justice protests and removals of monuments from public spaces, the institutional and private responses to them, and the boundless commentary on these (the editorial–industrial complex, of which this essay is a part) are, among other things, a contest over history and its interpretation, over what stories are told, how, and by whom.3 However discomfiting or exhilarating these events and expressions may be, it is through such engagement and debate that ideas are tested, revised, strengthened, eroded, discarded, disseminated, and put into practice. A vital controversy is always more democratically affirming and invigorating than a seemingly unassailable orthodoxy. In the longer run, we are well aware as historians of our own historical positions; it is humbling and healthful that we stay mindful of our own verities and know that they, too, will be challenged, later if not sooner.

It seems safe to say that anyone reading this possesses at least a passing interest in architecture and the stories of those who have made, remade, and depended on it. I would go further and venture that most of us are interested in doing something of use and value with the knowledge we possess and that we find in SAH and JSAH useful collective instruments toward those ends. Whatever our differences, then, we are all here because we want something from SAH and/or its publications and programs. That is fine and fitting; it is what the organization is here for, after all. With that in mind, and with the recognition that I have always gotten more from those situations where I invested something myself, I would like to issue an invitation, if one is needed, for readers to get involved, or more involved, with the Society, its publications, and its programs. All of these are accessible and malleable, and individuals working in concert can and regularly do have a direct and meaningful impact on them. If you can, if you want to, invest your time, energy, and expertise in them. Enhance what is working and bring change where you see that it is needed. That, too, is what SAH is here for: that its members might claim ownership and build effectively on what already stands, regularly renewing an organization that reflects its members and helps to serve their aims.

This issue marks my last as JSAH editor. Heading this journal over the past three years has been one of the great privileges and (more often than not) pleasures of my career. Though it is not an especially apt metaphor, I sometimes see the editor's role as akin to standing at the small end of a large funnel: much is poured in by many, eventually to emerge, one hopes, as a more sharply focused stream. To the JSAH review editors and the many peer reviewers who so generously contribute their time and expertise; to the staff at the University of California Press, our publisher, especially Cheryl Owen Swope and Lorraine Weston; to our managing editor, Kathy Hix, and copy editor, Judy Selhorst, paragons of professionalism both; to my esteemed editorial assistant Mackenzie Karp; to SAH executive director Pauline Saliga and SAH presidents present and recently past, Victoria Young and Sandy Isenstadt; to former JSAH editor Pat Morton and incoming editor David Karmon: all have invested much over the years, often with little or no recognition or compensation, to ensure that JSAH continues to publish the best-informed and highest-quality original scholarship in architectural history. I am deeply grateful to all for their wise counsel and good cheer, their generosity and commitment. My greatest appreciation, however, goes out to the many authors who continue to entrust us with the written products of their labor, including those authors not (yet) published in these pages. This is your journal. You make it work.

Notes

1.

Most of what gets published in JSAH is focused on the past, however far or near, but with its writers firmly grounded in their own moments, the journal's content inevitably offers snapshots of ever-evolving contemporary views and values. The material just noted differs in one respect: its authors speak to the present about the present, about history in the making, all the while acknowledging how the past continues to infiltrate so much of what follows for so long after. Note that the three statements, all SAH Board or leadership approved, have already been widely disseminated online. As the journal of record for our field, JSAH provides an apt permanent home for the important messages they carry. My thanks to their authors for allowing us to republish them here.

2.

The oft-quoted phrase “Journalism is the first rough draft of history” is usually attributed to a 1963 speech by former Washington Post president and publisher Philip L. Graham, though its origins go back at least to the first years of the twentieth century. See Tony Pettinato, “Newspapers: ‘The Rough Draft of History,’” Readex Blog, 4 Oct. 2010, https://www.readex.com/blog/newspapers-rough-draft-history (accessed 31 July 2020).

3.

For a list of the monuments and memorials that have been destroyed, removed, or slated for removal in the United States and other countries since the killing of George Floyd, see “List of Monuments and Memorials Removed during the George Floyd Protests,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monuments_and_memorials_removed_during_the_George_Floyd_protests (accessed 31 July 2020). An already immeasurably vast body of commentary and opinion has been published or posted on the current wave of monument removal. One of the most useful perspectives I have read is Dell Upton's call to focus less on individual cases than “on the entire body of civic memorials … components of expansive landscapes that, as a group, tell stories and narrate origin myths,” thus providing “key tools in the creation of what Antonio Gramsci called hegemony.” Dell Upton, “Monuments and Crimes,” Journal18: A Journal of Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture (June 2020), http://www.journal18.org/nq/monuments-and-crimes-by-dell-upton (accessed 31 July 2020).